Crow Wing County commissioners shot down a proposal to add four more correctional officers in order to re-open a closed jail pod.
The 60-bed jail pod was closed in 2009 as a cost-saving measure when inmate populations dropped. The sheriff’s department reported re-opening the fourth jail pod would allow the county to accept more inmates from the state along with other jurisdictions and be a revenue source. The state was asking the county to increase boarded inmates from 38 to 50 as of July 1. The county is paid a per diem to house prisoners.
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Debi Backdahl and Heath Fosteson, jail administrator, brought the issue back to the board.
The Crow Wing County Jail has 270 beds in four pods of 60 beds each, a 30-bed women’s unit and 16 additional beds for special management needs, protection, discipline, segregation. The special management area has inmates locked down 23 hours a day.
“If you are running your jail appropriately that unit should be empty,” Fosteson said.
The request to add four corrections officers was originally presented at a May 28 board meeting before the issue was sent back to the personnel committee with board members asking for more details.
Tuesday, after reviewing additional numbers, board members were still not satisfied.
Fosteson said the jail population was 180 as of Tuesday morning with a limit of 217. With the additional pod, the jail could increase its capacity to 266.
“Unfortunately this is a chicken and egg situation,” Fosteson said.
With the pod open and trained staff hired, the county would be in a position to take additional inmates from multiple jurisdictions. Fosteson said with everything involved in hiring from training to psychological evaluations, it isn’t a quick turnaround when it comes to adding staff. The county could add a $440,000 contract a year by housing an average of 22 state inmates.
As for revenues, Fosteson previously reported the last state contract was first for $300,000 and then went to $1.6 million based on need.
“These numbers to me are risky at best,” Commissioner Paul Thiede said. “I don’t think the state’s been a very cooperative partner. I don’t think the state is even a very cooperative partner in community corrections. And I have a real reluctance to say that this is even close to a sure bet.”
Thiede said in the past the state promised the sky and the county was lucky to get a few drops in the bucket. Fosteson agreed it can be an uncertain relationship with the state, noting in 2010 a few weeks after budget work, the county basically received a letter from the state ending the relationship. The state can choose to end a contract if the Legislature decides not to fund it. On the other hand, Cass County sent a proposal to extend its contract for 40 inmate beds in Brainerd from 2017 to 2023.
Chairwoman Rachel Reabe Nystrom said there is a lot of uneasiness about working with the state and hiring county employees when it’s unknown if there will be enough business to cover the costs. Fosteson said he can’t say he isn’t uneasy about a state contract but added he’d like to see the county utilize the jail as it was intended.
“In doing that we end up essentially making revenue,” Fosteson said. Backdahl said it was an opportunity but there are no guarantees.
Commissioner Doug Houge pointed out departments throughout the county relying on state programs.
“I don’t know why we wouldn’t give this a try given the exit strategy Heath has put together,” Houge said. “I think it’s an opportunity we need to try.”
If it doesn’t work out and the state doesn’t come through, Houge said it’s a short turnaround to be back to normal staffing levels given the experience at the jail. Traditionally, the jail has a high staff turnover rate as corrections officers move to patrol deputy openings or probation or on to mental health positions.
“This career is not for everyone,” Fosteson said, adding there are three new officers now and three more preparing to start in two weeks. With two officers leaving and more potentially in the same boat, there is repeated hiring cycle. For the sheriff’s department, it’s an opportunity to let attrition take care of eliminating staff positions should it be needed. Fosteson said by the time he has new staff members trained, he is losing others.
For the past three years, the county has witnessed a turnover of eight officers per year. Starting salary for officers is $20.91 an hour. The county has 43 corrections officers.
The county defeated the motion to hire four more corrections officers on a split vote with Commissioners Paul Koering, Rosemary Franzen and Thiede opposed.
“I’m just nervous without any guarantees,” Franzen said.